Sweet Sixteener Shannon Parker recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Ingrid Sundberg about her debut contemporary YA novel, ALL WE LEFT BEHIND (November 1, 2015 from Simon Pulse).
Ingrid Sundberg holds an MFA in writing for children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman University. She grew up in Maine, but now lives in sunny California, where she misses the colors of autumn. She loves polka dots, baking, and dying her hair every color of the rainbow. All We Left Behind is her first novel.
About ALL WE LEFT BEHIND:
An evocative and tantalizing debut novel! For teen couple Marion and Kurt, every kiss unravels memories they would both rather forget, and long-buried secrets threaten to tear them apart. Explosive together and hollow apart, Marion and Kurt may be totally wrong for each other – or more right than they ever thought possible.
Shannon: Ingrid, I want to thank you so much for allowing me to read an advanced copy of ALL WE LEFT BEHIND (and for being an amazing agency and pub house sister). Your debut novel is an achingly gorgeous and complicated teen love story that I know so many young adult readers are going to connect with.
First, I love how real this love story feels. It’s not all high school swoon and fairy tales and trust. Rather, it explores the broken bits within each of us—the bits that make us feel unworthy and ugly and scared—and how teens struggle with how to make those pieces fit into the world. Within their own skin. Against another person.
This notion of self-acceptance is such an important theme for both of your main characters, Marion and Kurt. Is that where your inspiration for ALL WE LEFT BEHIND started?
Ingrid: Yes, self-acceptance was part of the inspiration. However, I learned pretty quickly that I had to approach the concept of self-acceptance backwards. The early drafts were weighed down by my authorial need for these characters to love themselves and realize they’re perfect just the way they are. Only that wasn’t honest. I had to let go of the “just be yourself trope” and let my characters fail. They had to push past the surface and get ugly with their true feelings, discover their weaknesses. There’s a step before self-acceptance, which is self-awareness. I had to stop protecting my characters and let them see the broken pieces. I had to see those broken pieces with them. It’s only then that my characters could decide what they wanted to do with those broken parts and choose who they wanted to be.
Shannon: The story is told in alternating chapters by both Kurt and Marion. Through their first person narrations, the reader watches the couple struggle to accept one another, to trust one another. Marion is haunted by childhood sexual assault while Kurt can’t save his sister from meth or bring his mother back from the dead to make her stop drinking. In so many ways, these two characters are haunted. Their pain as sharp today as it was yesterday or the years before. Yet you handled this range of confused emotion deftly and honestly, and in such an authentic teen voice. Can you talk a little bit about your process for creating these characters and achieving that emotional depth you put on the page?
Ingrid: Absolutely. I have three techniques I use to write complex characters.
1) I stopped asking “what happens next” and started asking “how do you feel about what is happening?” This changes the focus from action and plot to character. It asks my character to be honest in a situation and forces me to sit in his or her skin. The amazing thing is that the plot starts to develop on its own when you do this. Once I identify what a character truly feels in a scene, they naturally tell me what they want to do about that feeling. They tell me what should happen next.
2) Mining. I’m always digging deeper to see what’s under each action and reaction. I don’t stop just below the surface. If a character is angry, I ask why. When they tell me it’s because they’re afraid of something else, I ask why they’re afraid. Where did that fear come from? Why does lashing out and being angry make them feel like they have control over that fear. It’s a rabbit hole of questions and answers that I run down, and I don’t stop till I get to the burrow at the center.
3) Identify abstractions. Emotion words like happy, sad, and angry are all abstractions. When a reader hears “She was sad,” it’s vague. It asks the reader to apply the kind of sadness the character is feeling from their own personal experience. Only every reader’s experience of sadness is different, and it’s not necessarily the sadness your character is feeling. The word sad is too abstract. It isn’t specific enough. So I avoid emotion words if I can. I make long lists of other words and images that will evoke the specific kind of sadness I want my reader to feel, and I incorporate those into the text instead. You’ll notice Marion is very tactile and sensual in ALL WE LEFT BEHIND. This is because I couldn’t find emotional words to describe what she was feeling. Instead, I had to evoke those emotions through her surroundings.
Shannon: You are a VCFA (Vermont College of Fine Arts) alum. Would you say that your studies shaped the writer that you are today or that your degree helped fine tune the writer that always lived within you?
Ingrid: Yes! I fully believe VCFA transformed me as a writer. The environment, discipline, and support the school provided was life-changing for me. I’m an “all in” kind of person, and I was willing to be molded, try new things, and re-invent everything I thought I knew about writing. I already had an MFA in screenwriting, and I thought I knew a lot. I was wrong.
Shannon: Would you have advice for writers considering an MFA program?
Ingrid: This is a difficult subject. My MFA experiences were life changing, but there’s also a huge financial investment with higher education that can be extremely difficult to bounce back from afterwards. I’m afraid people think an MFA is a golden ticket to publication and writing success. And I don’t want to mislead them. Of course, getting an MFA will help you attain that goal. But the MFA on its own isn’t what’s going to get you published. Only YOU can make sure you become published. An MFA will give you tools to be a better writer. It will help you find your voice and learn how to communicate the story in your heart. But it won’t create your career for you.
A concept that’s really resonated with me lately is this: We’ve all heard the phrase “knowledge is power.” But what we’ve failed to acknowledge is that knowledge is completely worthless if it’s not applied. An MFA will give the knowledge. But you have to take the initiative when you leave school to use it and make your own dreams come true.
Shannon: Now that ALL WE LEFT BEHIND is in the world what do you hope it gives readers?
Ingrid: I hate the idea of telling readers what they should “take away” from a novel. I don’t want to invalidate anyone’s experience. Reading a novel is intimate and personal, and every reader’s relationship with these characters is going to be different and special.
For me … I wrote this book because I wanted to explore the awkwardness and vulnerability of a real high school relationship, one where the characters have to face the true meaning of intimacy. Romantic relationships tread a complex space that is often unspoken and hard to articulate. I think what each reader “takes away” from that unspoken space can only be articulated by each reader individually. Which is awesome. I guess I hope each reader looks into that unspoken space and asks themselves for meaning.
Shannon: Finally, what surprised you most about the publishing process and why?
Ingrid: It’s funny how my life hasn’t really changed. There’s this myth that everything will change after you’re published. It’s the projection that the “grass is greener” on that side of the fence. But honestly, I’m just as insecure and nervous as I was before I got my book deal. I’m still the same person. I’m learning that I have to exercise patience, love the writing process, and focus on the work. The business is, well … a business. It’s not about me. I can only love what I do, and put my heart into it.
Lightning Round Questions
Big brother, little sister, in the middle, or one and only? Middle, between two brothers.
Favorite pastime? Swimming in the lake during the summertime.
Music to write by? Silence. I can’t write when there’s music playing. Yup, I’m a weirdo.
Favorite place on earth? Being near the ocean.
A band you loved when you were 16 that you still listen to…? Tori Amos.
Do you write longhand or type? Both. I brainstorm longhand. I draft by typing.
About the Interviewer:
future . . . until the moment he walks into her life.
This boy who smells like oranges. Who tastes like
spearmint and freedom.
This boy named Alec, who is about to sweep
Zephyr off her feet and never let go.
Coming March 1. 2016 from S&S/Simon Pulse
S.M. Parker lives on the coast of Maine with her husband and sons. As a young adult, restlessness drove her to backpack throughout dozens of countries—adventures she found far less intimidating than high school. She has since devoted her life to education and holds degrees from three New England universities. She can usually be found rescuing dogs, chickens, old houses and wooden boats. Shannon has a weakness for chocolate chip cookies and ridiculous laughter—ideally, at the same time. THE GIRL WHO FELL is her first novel. Find her at www.shannonmparker.com